Community engagement

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Merle Jackomos OAM

1929-

A woman who strove to make a difference

Merle Jackomos is an Elder of the Yorta Yorta nation with a strong sense of social justice. She has helped improve lives right around Victoria and Australia.

Merle was born in 1929, at the Cummeragunja Mission on the New South Wales side of the Murray River. Her mother died when she was seven years old, leaving her grandmother, Lizzie, to take care of Merle, her four brothers and two sisters. Lizzie spoke the Yorta Yorta language.

Idyllic scenes filled much of Merle's childhood at Cummeragunja – a word meaning 'our home' in Yorta Yorta. There were concerts, dances, regattas and sports days held throughout the year. However conditions deteriorated significantly under the watch of one particularly ruthless manager. In 1939, a mass 'walk-off' occurred, as many families moved to the other side of the river in protest. It was a significant moment in the history of the Aboriginal rights movement, but it is also notable that, rather than joining the exodus, Merle's family remained. In doing so they played a part in protecting the land of the Yorta Yorta from sale. Many years later, this meant the land would pass back to the traditional owners.

At age 16, Merle left Cummeragunja. Several years working in Swan Hill and Mooroopna followed, before she settled in Melbourne. It was here she met Alick Jackomos, an Australian of Greek descent. From a young age, Alick had ties with the Aboriginal community. The two married in 1951. They had three children — Esmai, Andrew and Michael — and remained an inseparable team until Alick passed away in 1999.

As regular attendees of Pastor Doug Nicholl's Gore Street church in Fitzroy — where he worked for the suburb's steadily growing Aboriginal population — the couple began to position themselves as key players in a vocal and active Aboriginal rights movement that had real impact in the 1950s and '60s.

In 1957, Merle started dedicating her time to the fundraising and welfare projects of the Ladies Auxiliary of the newly established Aborigines Advancement League (AAL). The Auxiliary was set up by Pastor Doug's wife, Gladys Nicholls. Merle remained involved until 1975.

Afterwards, she remained a key member of the AAL, first as part of the management committee and then as the President from 1986. She was given a life membership, along with her husband, Alick, who was the only non-Aboriginal person to ever receive one.

Merle was a member of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI). During the campaign around the 1967 referendum, Merle worked to promote understanding among the wider community, by explaining what the success of the vote would mean for Indigenous Australians. The referendum was won, and subsequently Aboriginal people were counted in the national census. It was an important victory in the ideological battle for equality and became a symbolic turning point.

Merle was a founding member of the National Aboriginal and Islander Women's Council, along with prominent women leaders of the time, including Aunty Geraldine Briggs. The Council lobbied for the successful establishment of many valuable frontline services in Melbourne, most of them based in Fitzroy. These included the Aboriginal Community Elders Services, Aboriginal Women's Refuge and Aboriginal Health Service. Merle was also a founding member of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, which continues to grow and provide legal representation and advocacy for the Aboriginal community.

Merle has served on countless committees and organisations, including the NAIDOC committee; as a member of the Victorian Aboriginal Land Council; as an executive member of the National Aboriginal Conference (NAC) from 1981 to 1985; and as director of Aboriginal Hostels Ltd from 1979 to 1985.

In 1987, she travelled to Nigeria as part of an Aboriginal contingent participating in the FESTAC Festival of African Culture. The same year, Merle received the Medal of the Order of Australia in recognition of her work.

Today, happily retired and enjoying the company of her grandchildren and great grandchildren, Merle continues to be honoured for her achievements. In January 2012, the first students moved into Jackomos Hall, a new residence at Monash University's Clayton campus named after an inspirational woman.

Merle's kindness, combined with her desire to see real improvements in the lives of others, means she has remained a proactive campaigner for change throughout most of her life. She is a woman who set out to make a difference and in the end that is exactly what she has done.